As the Illinois Dept. of Transportation moves forward on plans to expand the I-290 Expressway, the Chicago Transit Authority is also working on a plan to update the Blue Line sharing of the right-of-way with the Ike.
At a Corridor Advisory Group Task Force meeting in July, CTA Chief Planning Officer Carole Morey presented updated plans for the Blue Line Forest Park branch.
The vision study for the Blue Line branch has been spurred in part by the IDOT planning for the Ike corridor. The CTA is willing to acknowledge that the “extra track space” to the north of the Blue Line easement is not necessary for express trains. That space has been eyed by IDOT as a way to add an extra lane to the expressway.
But the two plans are likely on different funding cycles, said Citizens for Appropriate Transportation founder Rick Kuner.
“If IDOT can stay within the area they own, they don’t have to worry about CTA’s schedule,” Kuner said. Nevertheless, IDOT and the CTA don’t want to step on each other’s toes.
Maps on the eisenhowerexpressway.com website, meanwhile, show room in the highway’s footprint west of Forest Park for a possible far-future Blue Line extension to Hillside.
The study says CTA and IDOT “are coordinating different options for possible joint funding opportunities.”
The Blue Line study concludes that the 55-year-old Forest Park branch is beyond its useful life. Two minor derailments took place within the past three months along the line, as well as the “Ghost Train” incident in 2013 where a runaway train from the rail yard crashed into a stopped train at Harlem Avenue.
The track is “severely worn,” according to the study, with contaminated ballast, deteriorated ties, worn rails and poor drainage. The stations are over 50 years old and only four of 12 are handicap-accessible. All of them have narrower-than-recommended platforms. Electrical upgrades are needed at the substations, cabling and for the third rail.
The Forest Park maintenance shop and rail yard at the end of the line can only hold about 30 percent of the Blue Line’s cars, Kuner pointed out. The study called the maintenance shop “inadequate” in track configuration and capacity.
Nevertheless, CTA knows commuters will be using the Blue Line more during Ike reconstruction. The agency hopes that, by coordinating long-term visions, both projects can save money.
The CTA committed in June to retain the double station entrances in Oak Park and Forest Park at Harlem, Oak Park and Austin and has made the same promises about the Illinois Medical District, Racine and UIC Halsted.
However, CTA could reconfigure Cicero, Pulaski and Western avenue stations as “dual headhouses,” so buses going both ways can let passengers off. The CTA does not plan to reopen West Side stations at California, Kostner and Central avenues, which closed in 1973.
The CSX railroad owns the spur line south of the CTA, but Kuner said there’s no word on whether they would be willing to sell the easement. The CSX line is used almost entirely to bring train cars of sugar to the Forest Park Ferrara Candy factory.
Kuner has also pointed out that trains have a harder time than cars changing grades or going up and down hills. This needs to be taken into account when lowering the roadbed of the expressway to accommodate lower exit ramps.
The Blue Line Vision Study also provides a glimpse into how new stations at Desplaines Avenue in Forest Park and Austin Boulevard in Oak Park, as well as a reconfigured Forest Park train yard, would look. Renderings of the sleek, white Desplaines terminal station move it east to straddle Desplaines Avenue, so pedestrians don’t have to cross expanses of concrete to get to the train platform.
Artist renderings of platforms show them wider with better weather protection.
With the depot gone, the Forest Park train yard could be reconfigured with better bike and pedestrian access. The new configuration will have better storage capacity and a bigger repair shop.
The modernistic rendering of the Austin stop includes landscaping, a pedestrian shelter, bike racks and ADA accessibility.